The U.S vs. the World: The Smartest Kids in the World Evaluates Education Around the Globe

Oct 23, 2023
Education around the world Edmentum article

The United States of America has long compared its students to top-performing children of other nations, but how do the world’s education superpowers look through the eyes of a United States high school student? Journalist and author Amanda Ripley sought to answer this question. In her 2013 book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, she explores global testing data from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and provides narratives from three teenagers who chose to spend one school year living and learning in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, respectively. Through their adventures, Ripley discovers startling truths about how teaching, expectations, consequences, testing, and more have revolutionized these countries’ education results.

Even though this book was published seven years ago, the themes Ripley explores still resonate today. In December 2019, the most recent 2018 PISA results were released, and largely, the list of education superpowers remained the same. This lack of progress on a global scale made us wonder—how are some of the top-performing nations approaching education? Check out three possible answers based on some of the big ideas explored in this book.

Approaches to Teacher Training Programs

Approaches to teacher training are very different when you compare the United States to the rest of the word. In high-performing countries, teacher-training colleges are as selective as Georgetown or Berkeley. In Finland, education programs are as selective as MIT. The book points out that when countries are highly selective with their educators, it leads to highly intelligent educators with fluency to teach more rigorous material. Teachers can be accountable for results but autonomous in their methods. Ripley raises the argument that a key to successful education systems starts with spending money on training, recruiting, hiring, and paying teachers.

Low Expectations Yielding Low Consequences

Ripley digs heavily into the value of setting clear, rigorous expectations. Ultimately, she boils it down to the observation that when we have low expectations of students, their motivation is to meet these expectations and nothing more. When interviewing a student from Finland who studied in the United States, the student was asked why he or she thought students in the United States didn’t take school as seriously as Finnish peers. The answer was simple: American students didn’t have to. According to the student, expectations and rigor were lower in American classrooms. The student wasn’t alone in this sentiment. In a survey Ripley conducted of 202 foreign exchange students, 9 out of 10 international students who came to America said their classes in the United States were easier than their classes abroad. Of the American teenagers who went abroad and were asked, 7 out of 10 agreed. In a large, national survey conducted by the Brookings Institute, 85 percent of international students and 56 percent of United States students found United States classes easier. This same study found that over half of American high schoolers reported that their history work was often or always too easy. Less than half reported feeling as though they were learning in their math classes.

Exploring the Role of Testing

This book relies heavily on the results of an international test called PISA that measures the ability of 15-year-old students to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. The 2013 results of this test were used to determine the highest performing countries in the world. With this insight, Ripley breaks down the positives and negatives of testing within the different countries that are highlighted. For example, on the extreme end of the education spectrum, South Korea has a final exam before graduation for high school seniors that dictates their entire lives. During their senior year, students can be found spending anything from 10 to 18 hours a day studying. Only those in the top percent of their classes are allowed into the top colleges. The exam leads to extreme pressure and has tremendous consequences. I think that we can agree that this approach is extreme, but the book points out an interesting fact about testing and how it compares in the United States. Often, students in the United States get multiple chances to pass exams. Ripley’s argument begs the question of whether it is productive to allow students to retake exams and retest year after year. In high-performing countries, either students take a single, end-of-year test to get their diplomas (South Korea and Poland), or standardized testing is conducted among targeted samples of students, and the results are used to make sure that schools are performing (Finland).

Why We Think You’ll Like This Book

Amanda Ripley is a Journalist, and it shows in this book. She focuses on the facts without shying away from what makes education in America great and where it needs to be better. The student interviews and insights about their experiences with education in America and other parts of the world are so insightful. Ripley does an incredible job digging into the details about why and how school systems got to where they are and what they are like today. Though she focuses heavily on the topics discussed above, I’ve only scratched the surface on the topics explored. There are so many fascinating takeaways on parental involvement, technology in the classroom, extracurriculars in United States education, and more. If you care about education, this book is an important read, and it will leave you desperate to talk to others about its findings.

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